Donating Professional Services to a Nonprofit Auction: Should You?

hands raised at an auctionQ: The school my children attend has a yearly gala with an auction. We always contribute generously to the school. Some of the parents are potential customers. Is it possible to raise money for the school and awareness about my expertise by donating my professional service as an auction item? 

A: Great question.

First, some context. Nonprofits raise auction money by having a buyer in the room that intends to invest in the auctioned item anyway, such as a safari. Imagine, in a flight of fancy, that you have several potential customers in the room. They get into a bidding war for your package. When bidding reaches $20,000, the auctioneer proclaims that you’ve agreed, for the cause, instead of one item to donate three. Everyone cheers. You’re a hero. The school gains $60,000. Richard Branson did something like this for Resource Assistance for Youth, Inc., a group that serves homeless youth in Winnipeg.  

Generally, however, professional services make for lackluster auction items, unless people already keen to gain your service attend the auction. Worse, you might even hurt your brand. Imagine if your package inspires no or few bids.

To help the school and get known, you might, also:

  • Volunteer to help at the gala. Volunteer for tasks that involve opportunities to meet with other parents, guests, and sponsors.
  • Approach the school using Karen’s Unique Multiplier Approach. Share that you’ve dedicated “x” dollars as a gift to the school because your child attends. State that you also make business philanthropic investments. These investments might be as much as “y.” (Ideally, “y” equals an amount the school considers a major gift-this will get their attention.) Explain that any business philanthropic investments you make must provide returns-to you, the community, and the cause. Explore what you can do together.    

Or, you might:

  • Institute strict philanthropic boundaries between your personal and professional philanthropic activities. Continue to give “x” to the school. Forget about the auction item. Instead, approach other nonprofits where you find your potential customers, adapting Karen’s Unique Multiplier Approach. In this case, start with the “y” part of the conversation. Discuss your business philanthropic investment goals. Explore possibilities.

This option avoids the perception of your being negatively opportunistic among peers, (even though research shows that 90 percent of consumers believe that cause marketing is about business benefits). It also limits the school’s gains. However, many find this approach a comfortable solution.

Do you have a question about charitable giving that provides business returns? Send them to  

Karen Eber Davis

Before founding her firm, Karen Eber Davis developed the Sarasota County Community Development Block Grant Program. Under her leadership, this infant program received the National Association of Counties National Affordable Housing Award for the Down Payment Assistance Program. To date, the program helped over 1,800 families realize their dreams of homeownership. She also worked with the City of Ft. Lauderdale and the Florida Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs, where she developed the division’s first audit program. In an earlier position at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Tampa, she organized senior, youth, and children groups plus family activities. Her youth staffing work with the Florida Synod of the Lutheran Church in America supported youth ministries in 120 congregations in Florida.